The other Hong Kong takeover

As the British prepare to hand over to China, Terry Farrell is busy leaving his mark on some of the city's most important sites. By Nonie Niesewand
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The Independent Culture
``Are you going to be nice to me?" Terry Farrell is that rare species of architect who wants to be liked, not in the designer label, sod-off it's-Me mien of so many stars and wannabes in the architectural firmament, even though he's getting some of the history-making commissions. His buildings attract a lot of comment, not all of it adulatory. In London they stand about like landmarks, or eyesores depending on your point of view. At Vauxhall his MI6 building is a chilling reminder of the Cold War. At Charing Cross the raspberry mousse-coloured facade of his clunky building glinting across the Thames harks back to Gotham. It's hard to take a snap of the skyline without a Farrell getting into focus. This is assertive architecture.

To a minimalist like me who favours the ice-white pristine boxes of a John Pawson interior, they're the architectural equivalent of Loaded, full of testosterone and attitude.

Now he is asserting himself in Hong Kong, in a big but unwontedly subtle way. Terry Farrell's takeover of important sites makes history as surely as Lutyens and Baker cast their imperialist shadow upon the Indian subcontinent. In Hong Kong, Farrell has designed the British consular building, shared with the British Council, which will become the official British presence once Chris Patten changes his address.

Farrell won the competition tendered by a branch of the Foreign Office, the Overseas Estate Department, which owns more than 5,000 properties worldwide, because he didn't excavate the steep hillside to raise yet another tower block or put a concrete slab across it. Instead he put a small building, just 19,000 sq m on 10 storeys among the 80-storey giants "whose feet you just glimpse". It came in on budget at pounds 30.5m. The neighbouring anonymous glass facades that scrape the sky constantly change the light upon the modest little consulate's banded white granite facade. Steve Whittle at the FO says it was conceived "as a real jewel". Restraint isn't typical of Farrell, but this time he has made a quietly appropriate and discreet little gesture to post-imperialist China, and Britain's role in it.

In a more playful mood for the leisure centre high above Hong Kong harbour on the leafy Peak, Farrell and Partners came up with a three-storeyed building. "The flying wok", as it is now known, beams out like a beacon above Norman Foster's Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank and the IMPei banner-like Bank of China tower blocks far below on the waterfront. Farrell sometimes engagingly calls it the wok, besides describing it as "a bowl, open hands, a Chinese hieroglyphic, a Klaus Oldenburg sculpture, a huge clothes peg, or a giant teddy bear".

Inside this monumental block on the Peak whose impressive silhouette definitely has more in common with a Klaus Oldenburg tool than a teddy bear, a strand of Hong Kong history is explored on each level. Stage sets depict HK's past on the ground floor. No surprises there as the pirate ships swagger across acrylic seas and the British discover Hong Kong when sailors sight the waterfall that brought desperately needed fresh water supplies 150 years ago. The middle level, which represents the present, sensibly has the famous Peak outlook across the harbour that his building so successfully blocked from the tired shopping malls and Peak Cafe forlornly behind his gigantic new building.

On top of the Peak development building the future is depicted with a white-knuckle ride in a cinema of moving seats - "more Star Wars than Bladerunner and designed to last four minutes - if you stay for six it makes you sick," Farrell admits.

On Tuesday Terry Farrell flew to Hong Kong for the count-down to the fireworks at midnight on 30 June and to work on his most exciting project to date, the biggest rail station in the world. Right next to the water, it will combine the mainline station with much-needed tube lines, which is essential, as anyone who ever tried to cross Hong Kong harbour to meet a flight or a friend without a ferry knows. He's good at creating the infrastructure to shift a lot of people in the next century, which is why Farrell and Partners' latest project at Seoul Airport is to build a multi-nodal access system (eight-lane expressway, double-track railroad, double-deck suspension bridge, underwater tunnel, high-speed ferry system and helicopter route). In a smart career move, he's been given the go- ahead to design Samsung's new HQ in Seoul.

Giant air vents like brick kilns at either end of Blackwall Tunnel were Farrell's first buildings in 1962 when he was a London County Council architect. They have been restored recently, which he finds gratifying. In private practice for more than 30 years, this architect and urban planner is now being recognised for his love of the machine age overlaid with historic symbolism. What could be more appropriate for Hong Kong?

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